Friday, January 27, 2017

The Rhetoric of Unity and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Over the summer, I wrote a series of posts about unity -- what unity means from a Christian theological perspective, and the difference between that and the rhetoric of unity in the institutional church. Recently, I've been hearing a lot of unity rhetoric from more secular sources, and I'm once again pondering the uses that rhetoric of unity is put too. What's going on in the name of unity?

Just a quick summary of my earlier posts about unity: I contrasted the mystical, self-emptying love of unity in Christ with the monolithic, institutional unity that has more to do with Babel than with Pentecost.

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)
Just a photo of some other tower
"Babel" seeks unity through monolithic sameness, through the building of a fortress, a tall tower. You are in, or you are out.

"Pentecost" receives unity as a gracious gift, which facilitates mutual understanding among people who are, and who will remain, very different, but can nonetheless enter into a space of deep sharing.

"Unity," in other words, is a word that can be put to different uses. It can indicate sharing, interconnection, and inclusion. It can also be a remarkably exclusive word, one that shames or ejects anyone who won't toe the party line or commit themselves to the upholding of the institution above all else.

I have become increasingly suspicious of the rhetoric of unity, both in church and in society. It's a word that too easily means Babel, and too rarely is talking about Pentecost. Pentecost is challenging. It's risky. It's vulnerable. It's a bit scary. Babel emphasizes security. Peace through strength. Certainty.

Babel is, I think, the more natural, or the more instinctive, human impulse. At least that seems to be the case in our current mode of being as a society.

Pentecost is an in-breaking, an accessing of a deeper and truer level of unity.

So when I hear people saying things like, "We just need to come together and unite now so we can move forward" -- I hear Babel, not Pentecost.

Or when I hear people say, "Don't critique x march/action/group, we have to come together and unify against y," I often wonder, "Is that Pentecost speaking? Or Babel?"

The term "the hermeneutics of suspicion" was brought to bear on the Christian tradition by feminist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She argued that, when reading biblical texts, people who are concerned for justice cannot simply accept the text at face value or assume that the text is a good, benevolent, and truthful thing. Instead, we have to read with a lens of suspicion, paying attention to who is silenced or hurt or left out by the text.

It's not that the text is inherently bad. It's just that the text emerges from, and is interpreted in, contexts that have power dynamics at play. And it pays to be aware of those often-hidden dynamics.

So, when you hear the rhetoric of unity being used, it pays to be a bit suspicious. Whose purposes is this unity serving? Is the the unity of Babel? Or is it the unity of Pentecost?


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